On February 12, an endorsement of the United States’ war against terrorism, organized by the “nonpartisan” Institute for American Values, went out to President Bush and the national media over the signatures of what the U.S. State Department described as “sixty prominent U.S. academics.” The term “prominent academic” can now be applied to Bill Kristol, Hillel Fradkin, and Midge Decter.
If only the signatories had not strained so hard to look smart, they might have confined their support to a patriotic cheer or simply invoked the time-honored argument that regimes are supposed to protect their citizens or subjects against violence. The signatories (really, the authors) cannot figure out whether they are pushing a particular religion or set of doctrines. They say they are not, but even those who claim to belong to “secular traditions” are convinced “that invoking God’s authority to kill or maim human beings is immoral and contrary to faith in God.” It is strange to receive theistic instruction from self-avowed secularists who obviously have not read the Pentateuch—particularly the commands given to the children of Israel to exterminate Amalekites and other morally reprobate tribes. Such acts are not only allowed but, even more shockingly, are laid as commandments upon the Israelites, whether fighting idolatry or settling their land. Does this mean that the Old Testament (or possibly only Deuteronomy and Judges, where such teachings abound) runs counter to “faith in God,” because it contradicts what “sixty prominent academics” say on terrorism? Or are all religions that contradict this new Sanhedrin of Sixty hereby rescinded?
While the signatories say that they are not speaking as members of any recognizable confession, they hint broadly at a worldview that they would like to have the entire human race adopt. The war they endorse (and, it is reasonable to infer, hope to expand), is based on a “universal religious” principle, which they happily ascribe to Islam as well. They reject the charge that
these values are not universal at all, but instead derive particularly from Western, largely Christian civilization. We disagree. We recognize our own civilization’s achievements but we believe that all people are created equal.
Their “universal” credo goes on to reaffirm the moral validity of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the soundness of the teaching of “Dr.” Martin Luther King, Jr., that “the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice, not just for the few or lucky, but for all people.” Supposedly, King’s reformulation of classical and medieval natural-law thinking becomes universally palatable once it is associated with a black socialist practicing civil disobedience. But King was specifically addressing American laws, which enforced racial separation in education and in public accommodations in some states and municipalities. (Before his death, he would also invoke his variation on natural-law theory to justify political interventions against, for example, municipalities that failed to pay garbage workers what he considered to be a just wage.) Whether King was right or wrong to oppose these laws and to encourage massive civil disobedience is a question for historical debate, but whether his partisan speeches are the demonstration of universal moral laws, on behalf of which we are bombing Afghanistan (and may soon be bombing Iraq), is an entirely different matter.
What the signatories may mean is that everyone should believe that the U.S. government has a moral duty to punish those it rightly suspects of practicing terrorism against us. An honest person would have no problem with punishing guilty terrorists but, unlike the signatories, would not pretend that all religions enshrine a “universal” dogma that happens to be his own. Moreover, it is meaningless to assert that “we are by far the Western world’s most religious society.” What exactly does that signify in a country in which most of the Christian population knows next to nothing about the Bible or (as my colleagues say) about biblical story lines and, according to Gallup polls, believes that the New Testament endorses homosexual marriage? In a country where even Santa Claus, not to mention Christmas, has been driven out of public schools, is it true to assert that “spiritually, our separation of church and state permits religion to be religion, by detaching it from the coercive power of the state”? While not all of the signatories would disagree with this criticism (in fact, some have written voluminously on the same problems), each one, by signing the “letter,” vouches for a counterfactual picture of church-state relations in the United States. Furthermore, contrary to the letter, there is no evidence that the present American regime constitutes a religiously defensible golden mean between theocracy and secularism.
On page after page, the signatories tip their hand by calling attention to the Neoconservative Book of Common Prayer, featuring Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Such allusions remind me of Mr. Dick in David Copperfield. A true obsessive, the perpetual houseguest of David’s aunt could not end a conversation without babbling on about the execution of Charles I. In a similar but far less charming way, neocons cannot talk about anything (indeed, one wonders whether they can simply order a hot dog at a ballgame), without bringing up Lincoln, the American refounder, and M.L.K., the purifier of a once-racist nation. While Thomas Fleming insists that the King references are only a bumbling attempt to come up with a natural-law argument for a war that the signatories propose to defend, my own thoughts are darker. These references may be the homage paid to those whom the neocons can never put out of their heads, the same way Dickens’ character obsessed about King Charles the Martyr.
Some who signed “What We’re Fighting For: A Letter from America” may have had to swallow hard before affixing their shaky signatures. For those who would like to continue to believe in their general, if now compromised, intellectual honesty, it is possible to hope that this was the case, at least for a few.